"Knit one, purl two," Great-Aunt Fanny instructed with more than a hint of impatience. "Really, Jane, every young lady should learn how to knit. It's not that difficult."
Miss Jane Marple eyed the tangled skein of wool with distaste and thought longingly of her work basket with its collection of brightly colored silks. "I prefer embroidery, Aunt."
"Embroidery is all well and good for slippers and samplers, my dear, but knitting is ever so much more practical," Aunt Fanny advised her niece with a delicate sniff.
Jane looked down at her knitting - if it could charitably be considered as such - to hide a mulish expression on her face. At the tender age of sixteen, practicality had little appeal to this pink and white miss.
* * *
An hour later, Fanny Ealing permitted her great-niece to retire to her room, to loosen her stays and while away the time before the dinner hour with an approved novel or perhaps a nap.
As soon as Jane departed, Fanny pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration and rang for Victoria, the parlormaid, to bring her smelling salts. Her sixth decade was no time of life to take charge of a spirited girl, even if it was just for the summer, but her favorite niece Mabel had practically begged her. Jane would be attending an exclusive finishing school in Italy in the autumn, but until her departure, her mother wanted her removed from Winchester and the influence of a most unsuitable young man.
The maid glided gracefully into the parlor, bearing the smelling salts and a small glass of elderberry wine on a silver tray.
"Thank you, Victoria," Fanny said perfunctorily.
"My pleasure, ma'am," she murmured.
Fanny gave her a sharp glance, alert for any hint of sarcasm. Perhaps due to her inappropriately regal name, or more likely due to her undeniable beauty, with her golden curls, deep blue eyes, and china doll skin, Victoria was apt to give herself airs above her station.
Still, the girl was generally willing and quickly had learnt her duties after being taken in from the local orphanage for training. Victoria's year of training in service soon would be up, and Fanny was seeking a suitable situation for her. Certainly not in a household where there were any rakish young men, or the girl would wind up with her ankles over her ears and the orphanage would have yet another foundling to deal with.
"That will be all," Fanny dismissed the maid, with no hint of her internal concerns ruffling her countenance. At least the other housemaid she was training at present, bovine Annie, was "walking out" with a stolid young farmer and presented no similar concerns as to her morals.
As for her great-niece, Jane was by no means a beauty like Victoria (thank Providence for small favors!), but Fanny acknowledged she was a pretty enough girl with her English rose complexion, sparkling blue eyes, a thick mass of ashy-blond hair and demurely mischievous smile. Certainly pretty enough to cause a mother anxiety, particularly with Mabel a widow and having no one to rely on at home other than the flighty Fräulein Gertrude.
Fanny shook her head at Mabel's foolishness in hiring a foreigner, rather than a genteel Englishwoman. Her niece had employed a German governess based on the misguided assumption that she would instruct the three Marple girls with Teutonic strictness. In reality, the Fräulein was a sentimental creature who neglected practical household skills in favor of teaching her charges frivolous nonsense like the language of flowers. Fanny snorted. As though Jane would ever find it useful to know the meaning of each type of rose, tulip, and dahlia!
Yes, Jane would do much better to spend the summer with her here, in a quiet coastal town. Fanny Ealing was an upright, godly woman and she would keep her great-niece on a straight and narrow path, with Jane far removed from the unsuitable young Rupert, whose mother had so lamentably married a tradesman.
However, there had been distressing news conveyed to Fanny in this morning's round of social calls. The --nth Regiment would be stationed in their quiet little town beginning next week, preparatory to service overseas. Handsome young officer dressed in their regimental uniforms could be distracting to even the most sensible young women, and the good Lord - and Great-Aunt Fanny - knew that Jane was far from sensible.
"The young people think the old people are fools - but the old people know the young people are fools!" Fanny harrumphed to herself.
* * *
In fact, Great-Aunt Fanny's fears that Jane's head would be turned by a military gentleman were unfounded. Jane was pining for her dear, darling Rupert, still crying herself to sleep at night and writing tearful letters to him that she was not permitted to mail.
The presence of the --nth Regiment did at least provide enough of a distraction to prevent Jane from fretting herself into a decline over her lost Rupert. Even at sixteen, Jane was a keen student of human nature, and it amused her to draw parallels between the town residents, the newly-arrived soldiers, and her friends and acquaintances back in Winchester.
When Colonel Padgett, the regiment's ranking officer, came to tea, his square jowls and deep, barking voice reminded her of Judge Barnaby from home. Clara Sims, who lived down the lane from Great-Aunt Fanny, was fast becoming Jane's bosom friend for the summer. With her fluffy brown hair, slightly protuberant blue eyes, and breathless enthusiasm, she was so much like dear Ruth Dantry from Winchester that they might have been sisters separated at birth.
And then there was Captain Harold Waverly, who so resembled her darling Rupert that Jane's breath caught every time she looked at the handsome officer. Both were tall and dark, with a healthy, ruddy color that spoke of a love of outdoor life. Like her Rupert, the captain was popular with women and enjoyed the respect and camaraderie of his fellow men.
Out of fidelity to her dear Rupert, Jane kept a circumspect distance from Captain Waverly in their social interactions, so as to not court temptation. Still, they were thrown together quite a bit, due to Clara Sims' infatuation with the handsome young officer, and Jane was pleased to accompany them as needed to ensure all of the proprieties were preserved.
The presence of the --nth Regiment triggered a hurly-burly of events, as the local gentry extended their hospitality to the young officers. Jane found herself almost too occupied to mope after Rupert amidst all of the picnics, dinners and dances.
The anticipated highlight of the summer's calendar - a ball in honor of the regiment hosted by the local squire - was less than a week away when Jane was confronted by the shocking knowledge that social intercourse between the town and regiment was not confined to genteel persons or activities.
She and Clara were walking along the path than ran alongside the canal, heading to Great-Aunt Fanny's house from choir practice, when a strange noise, halfway between a gasp and a moan, caught their attention. In the concealing shade of an old oak tree, a red-coated soldier was kissing Victoria, pressing her up against the brick wall of the abandoned mill. Jane and Clara stopped and stared, aghast, as the man began licking and nipping his way down her neck.
Clara squeaked, and Victoria looked over the soldier's shoulder for the source of the sound. Her eyes widened at the sight of the two girls, but then a rebellious expression crossed her face. Defiantly, she drew the soldier's face back level to her own and kissed him full on the lips, tangling a hand in his dark hair to keep him from pulling away.
Jane grabbed Clara by the hand and pulled her away.
"What are you going to do, Jane?" Clara asked, shocked. "Will you tell your great-aunt?"
Jane shook her head as they walked away, down the path. She and Rupert had never kissed like that, but he had passionately kissed her hands and wrists and even kissed her on the cheek. With her own romance thwarted, Jane certainly was not going to be a tattletale to Aunt Fanny about what the parlormaid did on her half-day off.
Later, she would come to bitterly regret that decision.
* * *
On the night of the regimental ball, the sky was clear and the moon shone brightly. The air inside the Squire's ballroom had grown hot and close from the dancers and newly-installed gas lighting, so Jane happily acceded to Clara's request that they take a turn on the terrace after a sprightly quadrille. Mrs. Sims accompanied them, since a moonlit terrace was no place for a young lady alone, and a second young lady provided more in the way of temptation and less in the way of chaperonage to a flirtatious gentleman.
Captain Waverly was at the end of the terrace, unusually alone for such a popular man. Clara immediately gravitated in his direction, although it looked to Jane's more perceptive eye that he wished to be left to himself.
Still, he greeted them pleasantly enough, promptly stubbing out the butt end of his cigar. "Good evening, Mrs. and Miss Sims, Miss Marple. My apologies for being found smoking in your fair presence. It's a filthy habit, but devilishly hard to break." The ladies demurred, though Jane privately loathed the smell of cigar smoke.
"A pleasant evening," Clara ventured.
Talk of the weather and other trivialities occupied the four of them for a bit. Then, Captain Waverly stiffened, his eyes suddenly intent as he looked off in the direction of the canal. "What was that?" he asked sharply. "It sounded like a splash, and perhaps a scream."
"I didn't hear anything," Jane said.
Mrs. Sims, who was a slightly stouter and older version of her daughter, looked doubtful. "I heard something down by the canal. Perhaps a turtle?"
"I heard it, too," Clara agreed. "Although I didn't hear a scream."
"Ah, I've spent too many nights on duty in the Khyber," the captain said easily. "My senses may be a bit too honed for civilian life. Miss Marple, will you honor me with your hand for the next dance?"
Etiquette demanded that Jane accept, and she did so, though cognizant of Clara's disappointment that the captain had not picked her. Jane also was not particularly eager to dance with a man who smelt of noxious cigar smoke, and prayed the song would be a shorter one.
Happily, the night breeze had dispelled the odor, and she noticed only a faint tobacco smell, mingled with Captain Waverly's spring-like cologne, as they waltzed. With her sharp eyes, Jane also noted the captain was missing a button from his cuff, and mentally surmised the captain, with his easygoing manner, was a lax master to his batman. Her darling Rupert would never appear at a ball in such a state of disarray!
The captain was such a handsome and engaging partner, despite the slovenliness of his dress, that Jane agreed to give him one more dance before the ball ended. The remainder of the night passed quickly in a swirl of waltzes and quadrilles with red-coated officers and the gentlemen from the town, the latter clad in more sober shades of blue and bottle green. By the time Great-Aunt Fanny's carriage arrived, Jane was hard-pressed not to yawn and fell asleep almost as soon as her head touched the pillow.
* * *
The morning after the regimental ball, Jane awoke on her own, without the benefit of Annie bringing her morning tea.
Making her way down to the kitchen in her dressing gown, Jane found the household in an uproar, with Cook collapsed in a chair making use of Great-Aunt Fanny's smelling salts, Annie in hysterics, and her elderly aunt futilely attempting to restore order.
"Where is Victoria?" Jane asked sleepily.
"Dead! She's drowned and dead, in the canal!" Annie wailed, to renewed sobbing by Cook.
Great-Aunt Fanny struck the maid smartly on the cheek, bringing her hysteria to a hiccuping close. "Silly girl! Victoria is decently laid out in the back parlor. You must gain control of yourself in order to answer the magistrate's questions."
"What happened?" Jane asked her aunt a few minutes later, outside the presence of the servants.
"A bad business, a very bad business," Great-Aunt Fanny said grimly. "That poor, pretty girl, murdered by some brute of a man. The constable found a bruise on her jaw; she was knocked insensible and then thrown into the canal to drown."
"Go wait upstairs, Jane," her aunt directed, her posture rigid. "The magistrate may have questions for the servants, and it is incumbent that all of us do our duty."
Jane obeyed, but in due course, peaking down from the landing, she witnessed Magistrate Roberts' arrival, accompanied by Colonel Padgett, to question the household.
Annie, who had been Victoria's confidante, shed the most light during the interlocutory session in the front parlor. "It was that Alfred Jones, and make no mistake!" Annie declared, with her reddened eyes and a catch in her voice. "Always hanging around Vicky, making cow eyes and asking her to go walking with him by the canal on her day off."
"Did she reject his advances?" Magistrate Roberts asked in a morose voice. He was a sad-eyed man with sagging jowls. Jane, who had crept down from the landing to watch and eavesdrop outside the parlor door, classified him as basset hound, while the colonel was like a pugnacious bulldog.
Annie shook her head. "She went walking out with him, respectable-like, an' liked him well enough."
"Hah!" barked the colonel. "Just as told you, Roberts. Corporal Jones had no reason to be upset with the poor girl. Indeed, he had a ring in his pocket and intended to propose marriage, like the honorable man he is. You should be looking for some vagabond who accosted her as she walked along the towpath to meet Jones, not one of my soldiers."
"Begging your pardon, sir," Annie protested, "but Vicky didn't want to scrimp and save as a soldier's wife. She had grand notions that an army wife did nuthin' but go to parties and swan about in silks, and when she found out otherwise, Vicky wasn't as keen on Alfred."
"Was Corporal Jones cognizant that her sentiments had undergone an alteration?" the magistrate questioned.
Confused, Annie looked at Great-Aunt Fanny, who obligingly provided a translation. "Had Vicky told Alfred her feelings had changed?"
Annie's face cleared. "Oh, no, ma'am. She was going to tell him last night when they met."
Magistrate Roberts addressed himself to the colonel. "It seems clear enough to me. The unfortunate young woman met with Corporal Jones by the canal, as they had planned. When she declined his proposal of marriage, he flew into a rage and struck her. The drowning may have been an accident; we shall have to see what your man says for himself."
Colonel Padgett nodded decisively. "I'll go and question him now. Mrs. Ealing," he inclined his head, "thank you for permitting us to question your maidservant. Annie, thank you for your assistance."
The officer rose as he took his leave, and Jane took that as her cue to scamper away from the door and up the stairs to her room.
* * *
The parlormaid's murder was a nine days' wonder in the village, but military justice was swift and brutal. On the tenth day, Alfred Jones was hanged by the neck until dead, from a makeshift gallows erected in front of the parade ground.
His fellow soldiers stood in a rigid formation as his commanding officer, Captain Waverly, swung his saber downward in a signal to the executioner. Jane of course was not there, due to her tender years and genteel station, but received a full report from Annie. The housemaid had attended the hanging with her farmer beau, filled with an evangelical zeal to see justice done.
"That Alfred was a big bear of a man, but they made sure to reinforce the beams so that he would swing right and proper!" Annie related with ghoulish relish and no little hyperbole. Jane had seen Victoria kissing her soldier beau, and he was tall but of medium build.
The housemaid frowned darkly. "He got up on the gallows and said as 'is last words that he loved Vicky, an' swore on his black soul that 'e never hurt a hair on her head. Well, Alfred's burning in Hell now, if you'll pardon me for saying so, Miss, and I 'ope her soul can now rest in peace."
"Yes, may she rest in peace," Jane echoed mechanically, still shocked by her first encounter with violent death and the wickedness of men.
* * *
By mid-August, the quiet coastal town had once more descended into a drowsy stupor. Victoria's murder and Alfred's hanging had receded from the public consciousness, just as the troopships carrying the --nth Regiment to foreign parts had disappeared over the horizon the week before.
Victoria's small bedroom under the eaves had been cleaned, and her meager personal effects distributed by Great-Aunt Fanny to Annie, Cook, and then the parish poor. The housemaid had taken to wearing her dead friend's eau de violette perfume, a touch that Jane found morbidly disturbing, notwithstanding that the light, pleasant scent was one of her favorites.
With the regiment's departure effectively ending the little town's social whirl, Jane once more was relegated to hours in the parlor, wrestling with knitting needles and strands of sweaty wool as Great-Aunt Fanny watched with a critical eye. Even in her lightest muslin gowns, Jane sweltered through the days. At night, she tossed and turned, with crisp linen sheets prickling at her due to the heat.
A visit from Mabel's old school friend and her grandson provided welcome relief. Jane was tasked with playing nursemaid to Master Henry Clithering, who was not quite six. It proved easy to channel the young boy's natural inquisitiveness - which very nearly rivaled Jane's own - into games that occupied the long summer afternoons.
Today, Henry was nominally "fishing" in the canal, reduced to a mere stream by the hot, rainless days of August, but really was playing on the deliciously cool and muddy banks. Jane, occupied with an improving novel under the shade of a willow tree, couldn't bring herself to scold him. She had a change of clothing for the little boy in her reticule and would make sure he was presentable before they returned to the house.
"Janie, Janie! Look what I found!" Henry exclaimed, clambering up the bank so that she could inspect his treasure. He opened up his grubby little hand to display a gold button, lost from a regimental uniform. Gold for a commissioned officer, not the brass of a common soldier or corporal.
Despite the heat of the day, Jane felt an icy chill along her spine. The truth came together in her mind, like twin strands of yarn being knit into a discernible pattern. The too-slim redcoat Victoria had kissed so passionately, careful to keep his face turned away; the parlormaid's boasting to Annie about the leisurely life she would lead as an Army wife; Alfred's insistence that he had never seen Victoria the night she was murdered; the splash and scream that no one other than Captain Waverly had heard; the faint smell of violets instead of the expected smell of cigar smoke when Jane danced with him; the missing button from his cuff; and the expensive perfume found in the maid's room after her murder.
With cold clarity, Jane realized the truth had been staring her in the face all along, but covered by an embroidery of lies. There had been another man near the canal that night with much more of a motive to kill Victoria than poor, besotted Corporal Jones.
Captain Waverly had gone outside during ball, ostensibly to smoke, but had nipped off to the canal path to meet with the parlormaid, leaving his cigar smoldering on the stone balustrade to provide himself with an alibi. Along the canal towpath, a passionate embrace had devolved into an equally passionate argument. Jane could only guess that Victoria had threatened to go the captain's commanding officer and expose their intimacy. He had struck her, and Victoria then had fallen or been pushed into the canal.
Coolly, Captain Waverly then had returned to the ball, unaware he had lost a button from his jacket cuff in the struggle or that he now smelt of Victoria's perfume. On the terrace, he had stubbed out his cigar and engaged in light conversation, suggesting to Jane, gullible Clara and her equally susceptible mother that they all had heard a splash and a scream in order to cement his alibi.
Jane felt ill at the realization she had danced with a murderer. Even worse, Captain Waverly had tried to use her as dupe and very nearly had succeeded. Or perhaps he had succeeded after all, with Alfred Jones hanged in his stead. Jane was doubtful that Colonel Padgett would be willing to reopen the matter now that the --nth Regiment was en route to its overseas posting.
Resolutely, Jane straightened her shoulders and took young Henry by the hand. It was time to lay the evidence before her aunt, to discover if it was indeed too late for justice to be done.
* * *
"And so, my dear," Miss Marple addressed her nephew, Raymond West, "there have indeed been cases where I have failed. That case was only the first." She shook her head sorrowfully. "Two murders committed by that Captain Waverly, and none the wiser."
"Two murders?" her nephew asked. "I thought he killed only the parlormaid."
"No, Raymond. He murdered poor Alfred just as surely as if he'd run a saber through his heart. A soldier under his own command, too."
"What happened to Captain Waverly?" asked Joyce Lemprière, holding tight to her fiancé's hand.
"Nothing, I'm afraid. Great-Aunt Fanny wrote to his commanding officer and informed him of the button, but the colonel could do nothing on the facts set before him. Captain Waverly flourished like a green bay tree, as such wicked and ruthless men often do."
Raymond and Joyce looked appalled. Miss Marple thought fondly that they were both so young and innocent.
"When I returned home to Winchester, I immediately broke off my attachment to young Rupert," Miss Marple continued. "I couldn't abide how much he resembled Captain Waverly. My dear mother was correct - that sort of handsome, florid-faced man isn't to be trusted. I've since seen that time and time again, especially when a pretty girl is involved."
The white-haired, elderly spinster picked up her knitting, placidly resuming work on a fluffy pink scarf. "After that summer, I gave up embroidery. Frivolous, bright colors obscuring the stark truth . . . . I decided I would rather knit isolated strands together into something useful." The needles in her hands clicked in emphasis.
"If I had only known then what I know now . . . " Briskly, the elderly lady shook off her melancholy. "But I didn't know. I hadn't seen enough of life at sixteen to draw the village parallels. Age confers wisdom, and I had very little wisdom at that age."
Miss Marple smiled, sadly. "It's like my Great-Aunt Fanny used to tell me that summer: 'The young people think the old people are fools - but the old people know the young people are fools!' And she was quite right."